Robert Lewis Dear, the man who allegedly shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last week, is the latest white person to highlight the severe double standards we have when it comes to violence in our world.
As often happens when white people commit violent crimes, Dear was portrayed with a level of psychological and emotional complexity often denied people of color who are victims of crime, let alone perpetrators. Though white people have been named as the biggest domestic threat in America in some studies, no middle-aged white men were hauled on television and quizzed about why they hadn't anticipated Dear's attack, or why they weren't taking responsibility for his crimes, as happens whenever a Muslim is behind violence.
Most pointedly, white criminals are almost never labeled "terrorists," and their actions are almost never seen as connected to any wider ideological forces.
This issue has taken on major resonance in the last few years, as a string of attacks on black people or women in the United States has not been met with the kind of Defcon-1 crusading that takes place any time Muslim extremists commit violence anywhere in the world. "Why isn’t white violence that is intended to shut down black movements, or male violence intended to intimidate women, considered terrorism by so many?" Max Berger asked in The Nation recently.
Why indeed? Americans approach ideas of terrorism and violence from a racist, patriarchal place. There is simply no justice in these double standards. They let white people off the hook for the horrors they perpetrate. They perpetuate the idea that black lives, or women's lives, count for less in our world. No decent person can support any of this.
Yet I must confess to a certain sense of foreboding whenever I see the debate touch on "terrorism." It feels like a solution that exacerbates a deeply troubling long-term problem.
If "terrorism" were an ideologically neutral and dispassionate term, I doubt I would have any trouble with the push to widen its use. But the notion of terrorism is not deployed in a vacuum, as anybody who has lived through the so-called "war on terror" knows all too well. We have now spent the better part of two decades explicitly constructing a world of mass surveillance, indefinite detention, torture and constant war, all in the name of battling terrorism. Terrorism has been used as a cudgel to repress dissent; as an easy way to whip up cheap nationalism; as a brush with which to tar entire communities; as an excuse for ever-wider militarism; and I could go on and on. It has plunged the world into a disastrously retributive cycle of violence, fear and division with no apparent end.
As a white man, I'm well aware that I barely have to grapple with the real world effects of that system, and I'm honestly not sure what I would call someone like Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, if not a terrorist. Still, it feels like a kind of capitulation, an acceptance of the current system we live under. Of course that system should be fairer. But more than that, it should be different. We can't just balance the scales—we have to transform the entire foundations of our society. I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what that looked like. For now, insisting that we be more even-handed in our use of "terrorism" might be the most immediate answer. But I hope it is only the start of something much bigger.